Crisis in the streets of New York

As a native New Yorker now returned home for good, I feel it’s time to begin making my civic contributions, to start solving the real problems our city faces. Believe it or not, dear reader, I didn’t go to school just to summarize business books that are way longer than they need to be. I aimed to make a real difference in this world. And now that I have this platform of ten regular readers to amplify this message, I feel it’s time to combine my advanced degrees, my Public Policy bachelor’s and my MBA, to solve the real challenges facing the city that I know and love.

Let’s talk about the dangers of unregulated umbrella utilization.

 Source: New York Post
Source: New York Post

An unchecked weapon

Throngs of people in the most crowded intersections of New York are a norm. But on a rainy day, they become weapon wielding mobs devolved to basic instincts. Survivors duck-and-weave around errant metal supports. The more alpha types deliver full body-checks to fumbling pedestrians who stand in their way. In the worst cases, these incidents can be fatal (I assume).

My last brush with an umbrella in the streets left me changed. The first thing I remember was a wall of black driving towards my face, with only moments to dodge out of the way. I pivoted outward to the right, but too late. A metal prong scraped my chin as I tilted my head sideways to minimize the blow. I turned to see a five-foot-nothing Latina woman striding away with a gulf umbrella big enough for a family. The ratio of umbrella to human was like none I had ever seen. “Assault!” I shouted after her. “That’s assault! Umbrella assault! Assault with a deadly umbrella!” She paid me no heed. Neither did the passers-by. It was, Times Square, after all, where the standards of humanity are at their lowest. And did the police care? No. I was almost temporarily-permanently blinded by a metal spike that could have gouged out both of my eyes simultaneously (I assume). But the police didn’t even create a case file. There are certainly moments in New York where I wish for acute blindness, but this is not how I imagined it happening.

Umbrellas are intended for battling the elements, not each other. There’s only one solution that I can see. I mean that will literally allow me to see past the sea of umbrellas. And that’s umbrella regulation.

It’s a solved problem

Regulation has addressed the same cornerstone issue in the roadways that plague our sidewalks: capacity constraints. As early as 1652, New Amsterdam had speed limits for wagons and carts. Regulating behavior of vehicles makes our city’s pressured capacity more manageable. Providing basic guidance for how to properly use umbrellas, such as up-and-down etiquette and other fundamentals of urban umbrella wielding, could reduce accidents and unlock sidewalk capacity, just as road vehicle regulation has.

As it stands now, with no rules to give order to umbrella traffic, you take your life into your hands when you turn a corner blind on a rainy day.

There is literally nothing more dangerous than turning a corner in the rain in New York, according to recent statistics. Umbrella related eye gouges are up 14% since 2009 (I assume). The positive trend line below can only be umbrella traffic accident reporting, since no New Yorker actually drives.

 Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com
Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com

Setting standards

According to careful research conducted by NYAEG, New Yorkers Against Eye Gouging, umbrella accident incidence rates would be dramatically reduced if we introduced transparency and scale requirements.

Transparency

Regulation has a bad reputation because often there is a lack of transparency. But transparency is exactly what we need in New York. Specifically, we need transparent umbrellas. On a normal NYC day, you can see up and down city avenues for miles. But on a rainy day, visibility is reduced to legal blindness by a sea of black umbrellas. All because umbrellas are too freely distributed.

Scale

Short people usually get the short end of the stick. When it comes to umbrellas, that seems only reasonable. Yet like Napoleon’s land grab across Europe, the vertically challenged demand sidewalk space beyond normal proportions. It’s getting out of control. The other day I saw a four-foot tall woman carrying a circus tent. An actual circus tent. We need to bring reason back to how we allow sidewalks to be used.

A new licensing system

The automotive industry has solved the challenges of transparency and scale. Headlight standards ensure visibility for all drivers. Classes of license ensure that a driver can handle the size of the vehicle they are navigating. We can do the same with umbrellas. We must make transparent plastic the standard material. And we must limit umbrella sizes by mastery and height requirements.

Below is a simple system that could be implemented immediately.

Umbrella License Class Descriptions

Class Qualification Eligible to Use
Class D (the most common license) Stay to the right while walking; stop at lights outside of pedestrian crossing path Clear bubble umbrellas, wide enough for individual use only
Class A Same requirements as class D; also distinguish a fast vs. slow lane on the right half of the sidewalk (also known as, commuter and tourist lanes) Clear umbrellas wide enough for two to three people
Class G Same requirements as Class A; also implement up-and-down etiquette; top of umbrella consistently held at 6 feet or higher to ensure clearance of the average New Yorker Transparent golf umbrellas

Standard issue umbrellas for the average height would have the following dimensions.

Each standard deviation from average height would result in linear size increase or decrease to the umbrella issued, while maintaining the same aspect ratio.

Enforcement

Of course regulation is nothing without enforcement. And so I propose that the NYPD create a special task force, with the Rainy Day Fund, to ensure that people are wielding the appropriate umbrella for their license. Penalties for law breakers should start at 2 -3 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Objections addressed

Now I’m sure you’re thinking, what about advanced umbrella wielders? Why deny them the colorful expression of opaque umbrellas? We need to hold a high bar for such luxuries, considering the public risk posed by opaque umbrellas. These pedestrians need to be Formula 1 quality, people who can puddle-jump and pirouette like a Broadway dancer trying out for Singing in the Rain.

You also might think, what about mothers with children who don’t qualify for Class G licenses? There is no limit to the number of times adults can apply for licenses, for a low $20 fee, to cover the test and the cost of a street umbrella. Children can get a learners permit at age 16. We need to think about public safety above individual convenience. It may seem over the top, but that’s the point — to see over the top. I want to see over the top of everyone’s umbrellas. Those who just can’t meet the new city standards, will just need to invest in a good raincoat. For those folks, I can recommend a great one.

A vision for the future

Regulation adds efficiency when you’re at capacity, and New York sidewalks will always be at capacity. With such a longstanding problem, I have to wonder, where is de Blasio’s leadership? He’s too busy running for president. Too busy to imagine a world where rush hour swells at sidewalk intersections looked like lanes flowing smoothly rather than a fan of people taking both the right and left of the sidewalk. (I’m looking at you, New Jersey commuters at Penn Station.) This is the world we could have, with effective umbrella regulation.

Why Brazilians are burning the Amazon, and how policy has solved this problem before

 Satellite image 2019 Maxar Technologies
Satellite image of Amazon fires from Maxar Technologies, 2019

Nations across the world are lambasting Brazil for the rising rate of deforestation by forest fires. Images of the blazing infernos across the Amazon are viral on every media outlet. Surprisingly, most coverage frames the issue as a political one rather than an economic one. The focus remains on Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics, and the social injustice to indigenous communities being driven from their lands. Yet few ask why burning the rainforest seems to be the best economic option for so many farmers and ranchers. A candid look at Brazil’s economy and the nature of this classic policy problem point to both the central issue and some possible solutions.

One of the most unequal economies in the world

The Gini coefficient is the World Bank’s choice indicator of social progress. It measures income distribution, where 0 represents perfect equality (i.e., everyone has the same income), and 1 represents perfect inequality (where one person has all the income, and everyone else has no income). In May of this year, Brazil’s Gini coefficient rose to 0.627, just shy of its 1989 record of 0.633, when Brazil was the 2nd most unequal nation in the world. This marks a huge regression from their decade below 0.55, and it’s 2018 level of 0.51. In other words, more people are worse off this year than last.

 Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade
Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade

International pressure doesn’t put food on the table

The international community is doing its best to apply economic pressure rather than ease economic suffering as their chosen solution. And it doesn’t seem to be working. France threatened to scupper the EU – Brazil trade deal over the Amazon fires. Yet with the US – China trade war heating up, Brazil has another big market to sell its soybeans and cattle to.

So the EU tried offering a carrot with its stick: $20 million in aid to help fight the fires. To put that in context, the world’s richest nations just offered 1/6 of what Juicero raised to help combat the Amazon wildfires. It’s a literal drop in the bucket.

But none of this is surprising, because the benefits of burning the Amazon are concentrated and the cost are dispersed.

Concentrated benefits + dispersed costs = tragedy of the commons

Economic benefits and costs can be both concentrated to certain individuals and small groups, or dispersed to the public. Different archetypal social behaviors emerge with each combination of costs and benefits. The most challenging dynamic is the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource. It’s what causes over-fishing or drinking water pollution by factories. All the benefits flow to the individual or company. But the costs are so dispersed that no individual baring just a fraction of the cost has enough incentive to take counter action. Hence the richest countries in the world offering Brazil only $20 million to fight Amazon wildfires. That’s their willingness to pay as individual countries for the global benefit of mitigating climate change.

 The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource
The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource

How tragedy of the commons is (usually) solved

To overcome the tragedy of the commons, most policy makers try to emulate a market place. Governments try to create concentrated costs to match the concentrated benefits. They typically do this via privatization or regulation.

1. Privatize

Privatizing public resources is thought to create a sense of ownership that incentivizes long-term maintenance of those resources. This has worked for U.S. forests: privatization has led to sustained growth for about 50 years. Because loggers never want to run out of trees on their allotted land, more than 90% of U.S. paper comes from high-yield, rejuvenated forests planted for harvest. Fisheries have also tried privatization in the last two decades, with notable successes. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council privatized harvests of two species. This led to sustaining yields while cutting the number of boats needed by 90%.

Yet few critics trust privatization writ large. Standard market dynamics often continue to motivate destruction of the commons.

“Privatizing the commons may not work in a lot of cases. The incentive to chase a quick buck may outweigh the financial and social rewards of long-term stewardship. Ownership is not necessarily stewardship.”
– David Brodwin, cofounder of American Sustainable Business Council

The Global Landscapes Forum further sites how public land ownership optimizes environmental benefits. For example, many national parks would not exist without federal ownership.

So let’s suppose that privatization is off the table. That leaves us with regulation as a second option.

2. Regulate

Governments protect the commons by restricting resource extraction, using quotas, permitting systems, and bans. Brazil historically implemented restrictions on rainforest abuse, but enforcement has declined. Further, Bolsonaro signaled through his campaign and his environment minister selection that it is open season in the Amazon. The downward trend in government spending further suggests that environmental regulation enforcement will continue to decline.

Money talks

The likelihood of the current Brazilian administration using policy tools to solve this tragedy of the commons is low. But it’s worth remembering why the Amazon is being burned in the first place – money. Perhaps the west’s $20 million pittance needs a few more zeros behind it, and needs to be directed at those actually starting the forest fires. Money is a blunt instrument, but it seems to work for organizations like Kiva, a microfinance match-maker that has distributed $1 billion in loans to 2.5 million recipients. They create an average of 1.2 jobs per loan. GiveDirectly is another example of cash donations changing lives. Sustainable livelihoods and sustainable environmental treatment do not have to be mutually exclusive. We need to be more targeted in our interventions, by directing funds to those who need it most.